Go Big by Going Home

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass
6 min readApr 10, 2013


Launch Day: the culmination of thousands of hours of focused, dedicated work; hundreds of scrapped ideas that will never see the light of day; dozens of sleepless nights; a single burning desire that united a team to build something for the world with their hands and with their minds.

It is also, as we like to say at Facebook, a marker in a journey that is 1% finished.

Less than a week ago, we announced Facebook Home to the world, a people-centric family of apps for Android that elevates the way you share and connect with the people you care about. It will be downloadable for free via Google Play and bundled with the new HTC First phone available this Friday. Already, the team is looking ahead to the next iteration, to the improvements that will make Facebook Home that much smoother or more intuitive, to the seedlings of ideas that will blossom into the next big evolution of the product. There is no time for rest; Launch Day is but one of many milestones on the march towards making the world more open and connected.

At the same time, milestones are a useful time to reflect, to pop up a level from the dizzying pace on the ground and see if there are any lessons, any kernels of truths, to file away for the future. As design manager for Facebook Home, these are the three things that I am taking away from the experience of building our first version of the product.

A big project must have a big vision.

Facebook Home isn’t the kind of thing you approach by looking at what you’ve already built and saying, “Hmm, how can we make some improvements?” On the contrary, this was a project with a strong vision put forth by Mark to “make the content that people want to see—new messages and notifications and updates about the people around you—as accessible as possible.” Eventually, this came to mean “a news feed-like experience on the lock screen” and “the lock screen and the home screen are one and the same.”

I can with a very straight face say that these last two statements seemed crazy at first. Like, really, really ridiculously crazy. There’s not a single other example of a lock screen and a home screen being the same thing. That’s because the two serve different functions. A lock screen has to prevent accidental taps, show you the time, make sure you know which phone is yours, give you quick access to your last app, support a notifications system, etc. A home screen has to be extremely efficient at launching apps. We worried about what it would mean to muddle and combine the two. For instance, app-launching would have to be behind a swipe gesture in our model, which meant it wouldn’t be instantly accessible from tapping the home button. Would that be a problem? Not to mention, if News Feed was your lock screen, how on earth could we also cram notifications on there? And make the News Feed ambient enough to not distract you from getting to your apps? AND support all the functionality of stories such as liking, commenting, ‘continue reading…’, displaying photos and status updates and check-ins, advancing to the next story, tapping on links, etc? AND ensure that your phone wasn’t vulnerable to a slew of butt-typed ‘ghgggehgghg’-esque comments?

It’s likely, as a v1 product, that we didn’t get all of those things right. At the same time, ten months later, looking at Home and where we ended up, the solutions to some of the problems listed above seem obvious. I take that as a good sign. (My first boss once told me, “The sign of a successful design is that it seems obvious in retrospect. But those are usually the hardest solutions to come up with.”) For that I give Joey, Francis, Justin and Mac—the four phenomenal product designers on Facebook Home—every iota of credit. But it was Mark’s vision that laid the groundwork, that pushed the team to achieve what at first seemed an unlikely and somewhat audacious task. I would be lying if I said that no skepticism ever presented itself. It did, and quite strongly. There were periods when the vision seemed to demand too much, seemed to place too many constraints on the design.

But then again, that’s also the sign of a powerful vision.

Give designers the room to dream.

I'll let you in on a little secret. The Chat Heads feature was actually conceived of originally by Joey and Brandon prior to Facebook Home, in the context of something else they were working on at the time. Nobody asked them to design Chat Heads. Nobody went up to them and said, “Hey, please put together some design ideas for how we might build a lightweight, simple chatting interface on mobile.” Nobody handed them a spec or rattled off some guidelines for what they should do. No, the idea for Chat Heads came about because those designers saw a problem—chatting on mobile devices is hard—and they had the space and freedom to do something about it. Being in the early phases of their respective projects helped—theirs was an environment of exploration, when things were still ambiguous and crazy blue-sky ideas were encouraged. Having periods like that when designers can have the freedom to explore and dream up kind-of-out-there solutions is essential for good design ideas to flourish. If you are always executing on a week-by-week roadmap and running the product development process like a bootcamp, it’s likely you will get some optimization wins, but full-blown new concepts are not usually born from those environments. There needs to be time for both an execute-and-optimize strategy in design, as well as room and space for more creative, bigger-picture solutions.

Update 4/16: The Verge wrote a great piece about the inside story behind Chat Heads.

You don't design something like Facebook Home using Photoshop.

I touched on this point earlier in How to Survive in Design (and in a Zombie Apocalypse), but something like Facebook Home is completely beyond the abilities of Photoshop as a design tool. How can we talk about physics-based UIs and panels and bubbles that can be flung across the screen if we’re sitting around looking at static mocks? (Hint: we can’t.) It's no secret that many of us on the Facebook Design team are avid users of QuartzComposer, a visual prototyping tool that lets you create hi-fidelity demos that look and feel like exactly what you want the end product to be. We’ve given a few talks on QC in the past, and its presence at Facebook (introduced by Mike Matas a few years back) has changed the way we design. Not only does QC make working with engineers much easier, it’s also incredibly effective at telling the story of a design. When you see a live, polished, interactable demo, you can instantly understand how something is meant to work and feel, in a way that words or long descriptions or wireframes will never be able to achieve. And that leads to better feedback, and better iterations, and ultimately a better end product. When you are working on something for which the interactions matter so greatly—in this case, a gesture-rich, heavily physics-based ui—anything less simply will not do.

I want to end by shining the spotlight on the designers that made Facebook Home what it is. Now, of course, Facebook Home is far more than just design—it is top-notch engineering and strong leadership and talented content and research and partnerships and marketing. But as this is a post about design, this too, is a highlight about design.

So often at big companies, the work of individuals are blended into one big, faceless corporation. And yet, at the heart of any product are the people who made it their life's work. So let me just say this: I could not be prouder to work with a design team so talented, so dedicated, and so unwavering in their desire for quality. Joey Flynn—thank you for bauble, for cover feed, and for setting the bar so high in everything you see and touch. Francis Luu—your positivity is a ray of light, and so is your work on notifications, blues clues, and the end-to-end install flow. Justin Stahl—you started at Facebook and six months later you emerged with a launcher, an app, a preso, and more. Mac Tyler—your energy is an inexplicable well of awesomeness, thank you pouring yourself into saving the day again and again. Skyler Vander Molen—the experience site for Facebook Home is one of the best we've ever built. Thank you. Thank you. It's been an honor and a pleasure working with you. Now onwards, onto v2, v3, and the many other milestones on a journey that’s just begun.



Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial (sundial.so). Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.